Test of ‘true character’ awaits Farrell’s Ireland

Test of true character awaits Farrells Ireland
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell

Now we’ll see what this Ireland group is really made of, challenged head coach Andy Farrell in the wake of Sunday’s defeat to Six Nations title favourites France at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

A statement that applies as much to Farrell himself, as his players, one might suggest.

After a disrupted 2020, this Six Nations campaign was billed as, if not quite make-or-break, pivotal to determining whether Ireland were going in the right direction under Farrell.

He and his players now have three games to prove that they are, after France condemned them to a second narrow defeat, 15-13.

Ireland’s Round 3 clash with Italy in Rome on 27 February – a potential wooden spoon decider – now takes on even greater significance.

Away from the weekend’s ‘bigger’ games at the top of the table – Wales vs England, and France vs Scotland – Rome offers Ireland the chance to rebuild some confidence, before the tougher tests that await them against an impressive Scotland and Eddie Jones’s England.

Test of true character awaits Farrells Ireland
Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher scores Ireland’s try, which raised hopes

“We talk about the strength and togetherness of the group, and how close they are. We’ll see how close we are now,” said Farrell.

“We’ll show our true character, because we’re not even half-way through (the tournament). It’s about making sure [in] these next three games we’re at our best – that approach doesn’t change.”

A sentiment echoed by stand-in skipper Iain Henderson.

“It leaves us with our backs against the wall. This team needs to review what we’ve done and make sure we make some pretty quick fix ups,” he said.

Leaving aside the disruption caused by the loss of experienced trio Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray (both concussion) and James Ryan (hamstring) in the lead up, Ireland were left to rue not taking advantage of Bernard le Roux’s 24th minute sin-binning for a trip on Keith Earls.

Test of true character awaits Farrells Ireland
Stand-in Ireland captain Iain Henderson

James Lowe went close in the corner – only to be denied by a stray foot in touch – but that was the only time Ireland threatened in that period.

To compound matters, France’s offloading game saw them ghost through some passive Irish defence, for Charles Ollivon to touch down in the corner.

You’d have been forgiven for thinking it was France who had the extra man.

“When they were down to 14 men you have to capitalise – you’ve got to punish people for ill-discipline. We didn’t do that. That was our opportunity,” said Henderson.

France’s second try, coming from Damian Penaud in the 55th minute, looked to have put the game to bed for Les Bleus, after Lowe had rightly come in off his wing but failed to make his tackle.

Ronan Kelleher’s opportunistic try and a Ross Byrne penalty should have set up a grandstand finish. That it didn’t was down to some outstanding French defence, which suffocated Ireland in their own half.

Try as they might, Ireland couldn’t work their way up the field for a drop goal attempt or to try and force a penalty, until right at the death. Even then, France’s magnificent defence forced them back, before winning a turnover.

Farrell’s assessment that Ireland paid for not taking their opportunities was echoed by Henderson, but few pundits seemed to share that appraisal.

“You can take a lot of positives, but at the same time we had probably eight opportunities to win the game, and we came up short in the end,” said Farrell.

“The game was there to be won, but it’s one that slipped away from us.”

The game was indeed there to be won at the end, with only two points separating the sides, but in truth Irish chances were few and far between, despite an ample supply of possession.

Ireland’s lack of cutting edge was painfully evident. James Lowe’s first half disallowed try was as close as Ireland came, before Kelleher benefited from a stroke of luck to raise hopes.

Farrell felt Ireland managed the game “really well” in the first half, despite a subdued France scoring the only try and edging it 10-3.

“I thought the plan the going according to plan. We were doing very well set-piece wise and our game management was very good,” he said.

“We just lost our way a little bit in the third quarter and that got them back into the game.”

Farrell said he was “unbelievably proud” of his players’ efforts. That isn’t up for debate; there was no shortage of commitment to the cause.

“There’s a lot of lads hurting – physically as well as mentally – because they put their bodies on the line for their country. That there in abundance,” he said.

“The effort’s not the problem at all, but it still hurts to lose the game.”

But Ireland’s problem wouldn’t seem to just be taking chances, it’s creating them in the first place.

They must find a way to carry greater threat. A weekend off followed by a trip to Rome should offer an opportunity to “refresh” heads, as a frustrated Henderson put it.


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